“I am not afraid. I was born to do this.” —Joan of Arc
Sprinting is a surefire way for women to change their bodies. Sprint training has a potent effect on reducing body fat, while increasing lean muscle so that women raise the amount of calories they burn every day.
The result is that if you do it right and put in a strong effort, sprinting will radically improve both your health and physique.
Now, there’s an obstacle to women getting the very best body composition results out of their sprint training efforts. Most of the recommended sprint protocols are based on research that has been done on men. Because women’s bodies differ in terms of metabolism and exercise response, what works best for men doesn’t always work best for women.
Fortunately, scientists have begun to identify which protocols produce the greatest reward for women’s efforts. This article will review the sprinting research and provide guidelines for females to effectively maximize sprinting results.
#1: Do 30-second maximal sprints to lose body fat and build lean muscle.
Who’s it for? Physically active women who want to reduce body fat and improve conditioning.
The Wingate protocol is a popular sprint workout that starts with four all-out 30-second sprints with 4 minutes rest done 3 times per week. Trainees increase their repeats progressively so that they do 6 sprint repeats.
A new Wingate study done on normal-weight, college-age women that used running intervals on a self-propelled treadmill found that the women lost an average 1.4 kg of fat, reduced body fat by 8 percent, and decreased waist circumference by 3.5 percent. They also gained 1.3 percent lean muscle and improved conditioning and running speed by 5 percent.
Researchers believe this study was valuable because it reveals the following:
• The Wingate protocol is a highly effective model for most women to lose fat and improve body composition, all without the need to diet or cut calories.
• A previous study using 4 x 30-second running sprints found that the leaner women in the study did not lose any body fat, whereas the fit men who took part did. The men lost a significant 3 kg equaling a 12 percent decrease in body fat.
Researchers concluded that the Wingate protocol may not be the best method for all women. Rather, training should be individualized. Women who have lower body fat, or who have trouble recovering effectively due to outside stressors may benefit from high- but not maximal-intensity sprints.
• Women should train against resistance to optimize body composition. In this study, the women gained significant muscle in just 6 weeks, which is shorter than is generally required for measurable muscle development to occur. This was likely due to the fact that the self-propelled treadmill generated enough external resistance to stimulate muscle building. Running or cycling without resistance might not produce as dramatic an increase in such a short time.
Use It: Build up your conditioning and time your recovery when using a Wingate protocol. Do four 30-second sprints with 4 minutes rest the first week, five sprints the second week, and then six sprints the next week.
Train against resistance. If you’re not lifting weights, do your sprints against resistance—running intervals can be done on a Woodway treadmill, or try weighted sled sprints, cycle ergometer sprints on an Airdyne bike, or high-intensity weight training.
Pay attention to what you eat. This protocol can help you lose fat without dieting. But watch out that you aren’t eating more calories than normal, either as a “reward” to yourself, or because you’re not recovering optimally and stress hormones are remaining elevated, leading to cravings and increased hunger.
Remember that the best sprint protocol will be unique to the individual, so if you’ve given it your best effort and Wingate’s not working for, try one of these…
#2: Do moderately high-intensity intervals to improve metabolism and get lean.
Who’s it for? Anyone who wants to lose body fat but feels they are under enough “maximal” stress in their daily life. Also beneficial for women who have endurance goals along with a desire for a lean and lovely physique.
High-intensity intervals take a little longer than all-out training, but they’re highly effective and provide mental relief if you’re not finding yourself able to generate the focus and drive required for maximal efforts.
One reason that submaximal sprints are useful for women is that comparison studies of how men and women respond to interval training show that men achieve higher peak power, which is partly due to the fact that women tend to have less muscle than men.
In simple terms, this means that men go harder at the start of a sprint. As sprinting duration progresses, their performance drops off rapidly. Women maintain their pace. This allows them to achieve higher heart rate maximum values, which they are able to maintain over the course of a workout.
Women also burn more fat during exercise and deplete ATP more slowly than men (whose bodies rely more on glucose), which contributes to women being able to recover faster than men. This makes exercise that enhances fat burning absolutely essential for women because of the unfortunate fact that women burn much less fat at rest.
Use It: Try submaximal intervals of 1 minute or longer. This will allow women to increase their body’s ability to burn fat and enhance the cells sensitivity to insulin for better energy use.
For example, a study found that fat burning increased by as much as 25 percent in response to high-intensity cycle ergometer training using ten 60-second intervals at 80 to 90 percent of maximal with 60 seconds active rest.
If you’re a novice, start with a 1:1 work-to rest ratio to improve your body’s ability to burn fat for energy.
If you’re active, use a larger work-to-rest ratio to produce greater metabolic stress. Try a 2:1 or 3:1 work-to-rest ratio. A place to start is with 1-minute intervals with 30 seconds active rest.
Train against resistance. If you’re lifting weights in addition to conditioning, lift at least twice a week and sprint at least twice a week. If you’re not lifting, maintaining muscle mass is a priority so opt for an interval mode against resistance.
#3: Build conditioning and lose body fat with short all-out sprints.
Who’s it for? Overweight and novice women who want to change their bodies and fix metabolism.
Very short all-out sprints can help women who are fairly new to exercise to lose body fat and improve health. For instance, a study of 45 young women found that bike sprints done 3 days a week produced an impressive average loss of 2.5 kg of body fat and increase in lean muscle of 0.6 kg. The women also lost 0.15 kg of belly fat, which looks like a small amount but is significant due to its location around the organs.
This study revealed some striking points:
The interval cycle sprints (8-second resisted sprints followed by 12 seconds of low-intensity cycling, repeated 60 times for a total of 20 minutes) were compared with steady-state “cardio” cycling for 40 minutes. In half the training time, the interval group dramatically improved body composition, whereas the cardio group gained an average of 0.4 kg, or about a pound.
The sprint group lost most of their fat from the thighs and trunk. This is an area that is considered “tricky” for women. Researchers write that sprint training with the lower body musculature is a valuable for producing fat loss in the lower body in females. It may even be an exception to the principle that “spot reduction is not possible, (because) the body will mobilize preferentially those stores with the highest concentrations of adipose cells (Trapp, 689-90).”
Within the interval training group, the leaner women lost less body fat than those who originally had more body fat. With the four leanest women removed from calculations, average fat loss was an envious 4 kg, suggesting that sprint training is well worth the effort if you’re overweight.
The interval trainees’ metabolism was also improved by the end of the study as seen by lower fasting insulin levels and decreases in concentration of the hormone leptin.
Use It: An 8-seconds on, 12-seconds off interval protocol done three times a week is ideal for women who are new to interval training or have not engaged in intense training recently. Longer intervals are indicated for trained women and athletes, although that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use this protocol for a few weeks for variety.
#4: Improve athletic performance, endurance, and speed with sprints.
Who’s it for: Female athletes of all sorts—competitive, recreational, field, sport, and endurance.
Sprint training is tremendously effective for giving you the competitive edge. Despite this, there aren’t a lot of studies on which protocols produce the best performances in females.
We do have one study of female soccer players who did five 30-second Wingate running intervals in order to improve high-intensity work capacity and overall conditioning by 42 percent more than a group of players who did 40 minutes of endurance running.
The interval training group said they enjoyed the conditioning workouts more than the endurance group because of the competitive nature of sprints. Another plus was that the sprint workouts took about half the training time as the endurance workouts.
Use It: A few take away points stand out when programming sprints for female athletes:
Endurance capacity, an athletic ability that has become underrated with the increase in “fat loss” training, can be improved with sprint workouts.
Look for ways to give athletes mental relief when designing conditioning workouts by providing competition or “pyramiding” down the intensity. For example, do decreasing distance sprints of 400, 300, 200, 100 meters. Or try a “fast start” strategy in which you do 2 to 4 sprints all-out, followed by the same number of moderate intensity repeats. By starting the workout with a bang, you can more than double the time spent above the “critical threshold” of maximal oxygen use.
When adding sprint conditioning on top of regular sports practice and strength training, be aware of the need for optimal recovery. In theory, any kind of intense training, whether sprints, heavy lifting, or tissue-damaging plyometrics require 48 to 72 hours for the central nervous system to recover.